Elevating Survivor Voices in IPV Responses

April 24, 2023

DV RISC Survivor Advisory Board

April 23rd-29th is National Crime Victims’ Rights Week with 2023’s theme of, Survivor Voices: Elevate. Engage. Effect Change. The theme “calls upon communities to amplify the voices of survivors and create environments where survivors have the confidence that they will be heard, believed, and supported.”

This podcast elevates the voices of Malika Pegues and Jennifer Moston, DV RISC Survivor Advisory Board Members. Jennifer shares her powerful story with Malika, and the two of them discuss systematic and complex problems that intimate partner violence (IPV) survivors often encounter, such as law enforcement, healthcare, and court responses to IPV. They offer suggestions for how systems and communities can create better environments for survivor voices to be elevated, and discuss the important role that risk assessments can play in effecting change.

MALIKA:              Welcome to the DV RISC Project Podcast. Just a warning, we will be talking about some sensitive topics, and it may trigger some individuals who have experienced trauma with intimate partner violence. Please proceed with caution, and if you need a moment to pause and take a break and just regulate your emotions, please do so. We will be proceeding with some very hard topics to hear.

My name is Malika Pegues. A lot of my experience is in mental health. I come from a background where I have done crisis counseling. I have done behavioral health. I’ve worked as even a receptionist at a counseling center. Some of my education, because of that, is based on psychology, neuroscience, and even my master’s is in school psychology where we focus mainly on assessment. I’m also here with Jennifer Moston. We are board members of the DV RISC Project. DV RISC stands for Domestic Violence Resource for Increasing Safety and Connection. It is a national resource center led by the Center for Justice Innovation, Ujima and Esperanza United, which works with communities around the country to better identify and respond to high-risk intimate partner violence cases.

Through the use of risk assessments, we utilize our leadership skills to help other organizations in their work with communities and people impacted by intimate partner violence. It’s also supported by the US Department of Justice Office on violence against women. The National Crime Victims’ Week is coming up at the end of April, and we’re here to talk about this year’s theme, which is- Survivor Voices: Elevate. Engage. Effect Change, which calls upon communities to amplify those voices of survivors and commit to creating an environment where survivors have confidence that they’ll be heard, believed, and supported. I love, love, love the theme and I’m looking forward to today’s discussion. Before we get started, I wanted to introduce Jennifer. Jennifer, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? What do you normally do throughout the week and what’s your favorite thing to do on the weekend? Come on in.

JENNIFER:              Hi, thank you so much. I am first and foremost a mother of four beautiful children. I am a survivor of domestic violence. I am an advocate for domestic violence. I do a lot of advocacy work and sit on boards and do whatever I can to help other women. In my professional life, I am a managing director of a financial services firm. My weekends are spent watching my kids do what they love, whether it be baseball, soccer, swim, football, basketball. With four kids, we pretty much do it all.

MALIKA:                I love that you are a mother of many, a very important role, and as I am, it is so true and so dear to me. So, let’s get into it. When we’re talking about survivors of intimate partner violence or IPV is what we call it, we know that they can sometimes feel that they don’t feel safe or supported in an environment in which they can open up and talk about what’s really going on. We know that many survivors don’t feel comfortable calling the police and sometimes contacting agencies out there. There’s plenty of organizations that we can reach out to that people don’t even realize. So out worry, they may not be properly heard. They’re not believed. They’re not supported. Jennifer, can you discuss a little bit about why creating safe spaces for survivors of IPV and why it’s important to open up and how communities can be better at creating environments where survivors feel heard, believed, and supported?

JENNIFER:              Absolutely. I believe this is so important because as a survivor, when you’re in that situation of abuse, you feel completely alone. You feel isolated. A lot of times the abuser does isolate their victim and going through that is a horrific experience. It depends on what he looks like on the outside. A lot of times these abusers are narcissists and to the public, they look like upstanding great people and they’re able to turn things around to make their victim seem like they’re crazy and everything is their fault. It’s really hard when you’re in that situation to reach out to somebody to get help, like you said, for fear of not being believed or for fear of feeling embarrassed by being in this situation that you are in. I believe one of the biggest fears is losing… A woman, looking at the possibility of her children being taken away from her for being in a situation or having to get out of a situation and possibly share custody over children with the abuser.

Going to hospitals and police stations isn’t always the easiest option because they don’t necessarily understand, and you have no idea when you’re in that situation what that’s going to feel like. It is very scary. The best place to go is to be around other people who understand what you’ve been through and understand that they can’t just say, “You have to get out right now. You have to leave.” But instead saying, “I understand where you are. I understand how scared you are. I understand how dangerous it is to leave. Let’s make a plan and we’re here for you.”

MALIKA:                 Absolutely. Even just, survivors or victims feeling the shame and embarrassment of their situation, because sometimes a victim may feel like, “This can’t happen to me. Imagine what a person may think of me. How could this happen to me?” I feel like sometimes victims may prevent themselves from even speaking up against it or about it or what’s going on to them because the stigma of that sometimes is on victims and being weak-minded or things such as that. Maybe just even bringing some light to how we perceive people who are in these situations.

I think it’s important that our communities constantly push out resources for individuals who are dealing with domestic violence or intimate partner violence. When this is being constantly put out there, this information, then it normalizes that there are people out there who experience these things and it’s not something that is their fault. It’s something that could happen to anyone. If everyone could have some type of flyer or even billboards or even just people talking about it, creating those conversations. I love how, in my community, there are people like the Jewish Board for example, they had put out a flyer saying that they’re going to have a town hall based off of domestic violence and what resources they have.

If we have that and we’re constantly giving it and offering out to the community, they know where to go and they know who is going to listen to them and what could be said. They don’t feel limited to the individuals around them who don’t have the training because not everyone has the training. It’s important to find those people who do have the access, who do have the resources.

There are different avenues for survivors to open up, and it’s important that they always feel heard and supported. Jennifer has been in the financial services industry for 23 years.

In her line of work there are other opportunities that we may not have even seen or discussed for survivor’s voices to be heard, especially when it comes to financial planning. Jennifer, can you elaborate on what do we have in the financial realm that we can offer to survivors of intimate partner violence?

JENNIFER:            Yeah, there are so many different signs of domestic violence and coercion and control that people are only looking for certain things. We train police and we train healthcare professionals, but like you said, domestic violence isn’t a one-size-fits-all. There are so many people that are in this situation. It doesn’t matter what you look like, where you live, what you do for a living, it can happen to everybody. One other thing that we can look at, besides physical and emotional control, is the financial control. In my line of business working with financial advisors, it’s training advisors to look for certain signs of that control when they’re meeting with clients who are couples. Is he making the decisions? Is he allowing her to have say in what they’re doing with their finances? Does she feel lost?

Even things as far as life insurance. What kind of insurance policies are being put on the spouse and the children? Obviously, I am a huge advocate for everybody having life insurance, but it’s looking for those weird nuances and looking for clues that maybe somebody is being financially abused and they’re being controlled, and they are not having full access to their own finances.

MALIKA:                 Right. That happens a lot actually and I think that’s the number one reason why individuals who are experiencing domestic violence-why they don’t leave, because they don’t have the resources, they don’t have the means of having a lifestyle or living on their own of these individuals may be fearful of shelters or maybe public assistance and things.

Being scared of the unknowing is what keeps them in that place. Things like what you were talking about is what you are basically expressing- is that-what your field, what you do is you help them find those resources so that they can move forward and out of those situations. Correct?

JENNIFER:              Correct. Just being able to teach my financial professionals of signs to look for when they’re meeting with clients to see if they can identify, and in this industry we’re constantly being trained on looking for elder abuse, but we need to be looking for domestic abuse as well.

MALIKA:                 Absolutely. Part of creating these environments where survivors can be heard is making sure that communities are aware of the signs of IPV and, in particular, the risk factors for lethal IPV. That is the risk of a survivor being killed. We’ve learned in our work from the DV RISC project that there are a number of risk factors that indicate that a person could seriously be harmed or even be killed. These include things like recent separation. Let’s just say an individual had moved away from a person for a lengthy part of time, that could be a flag. Stalking, this might sound like, “This person keeps calling me constantly and it is unwanted.” Or possibly, “When I left from my job and the individual is standing there outside of my job.” Or, maybe, “I was grocery shopping and then they were sitting in their car. As I came out and approached me to help me with my bags and it was unwanted.”

Things like that are, particularly, very, very disturbing when it comes to stalking. Stalking is usually a high indicator that you may be at risk. Choking or strangulation as well is a very high indicator that you may be at risk. This may be lines on the neck. For example, you might see it if a person has said in their history that they have experienced this. Then also a big red flag is access to firearms. If there is a weapon in the home or if a partner had recently purchased a firearm. These are the things that we need to be looking out for in every profession when you’re working with victims of intimate partner violence.

I just want to be clear that separation, stalking, choking and strangulation, and lastly, access to firearms, are very important, key indicators that a person may be in serious danger. A question for all of us is how can different community groups such as faith-based leaders, healthcare clinics, or even non-traditional agencies, like what Jennifer has mentioned, what can they do if they’re interacting with the survivor who is describing those things that I was talking about, such as, separation, stalking, choking, strangulation, and firearms. What are some things that they can do and how do you address this situation?

In my line of work, I have encountered a lot of individuals who have expressed their stories of intimate partner violence. Many of them have interacted with faith-based leaders. They have interacted with healthcare clinics or even non-traditional agencies. Maybe it could be a counseling center. Maybe it could be a recreational center. There are so many places that people go and there are moments that a person is trying to reach out for help in a way that is not so overt. Sometimes it could be so minute or so subtle that it’s not picked up on. These things happen all the time, and sometimes we’re not aware that they’re happening in front of us. We’re not aware of the signs. We’re not aware of those risk factors that really make it imminent that they might be in danger.

How do we address this? How do we identify this? How do we help these people if we don’t know what to look out for? I know Jennifer, for you, you were experiencing also a number of these high risk factors or red flags, and you did contact the police and they weren’t really responsive to what they were hearing and to support you. I’m really, really sorry that that was your experience and it’s really unfortunate. Would you mind sharing a little bit about what your experience was?

JENNIFER:              Yeah, absolutely. Like you said, you mentioned the separation, the stalking, the strangulation, and all of those did occur to me. We talk about having access to firearms and a firearm was a tool that he had used many, many times on a frequent basis to scare and try to control. The instance where the strangulation happened, my brother and sister happened to be staying in my house that night and he was angry with me. We were up in our bedroom, and he got on top of me and started strangling me to the point where I knew this was it, and in my head, I was telling myself, “I knew it was going to happen at some point.” He eventually got off me and I started screaming for him to get away from me. My brother and sister came up and started pounding on the door and saying, “What’s going on?”

I was so scared of him that I kept saying, “Nothing, nothing.” Eventually my sister called the police. The police came, and I just kept screaming at my sister, “You don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t know what you’re doing.” Because I knew that it was just going to make this situation worse if the police were involved and I wasn’t sure what to do. I was so scared. The police came and they actually questioned him and I in the same room. Obviously, being questioned in the same room with him, the man who just strangled me. What am I going to say? Even though the police were there, I was so scared. Had the police interviewed us in separate rooms, to be completely honest with you, don’t know if I would’ve felt comfortable enough to open up.

Maybe, had they asked me questions, or been trained on what to say, it might have gone differently. But ultimately I said he didn’t strangle me because I was scared and they told him that he simply just had to leave the house to cool down for a few hours, and he was back four hours later. They had asked about firearms, but they didn’t take the firearms out of the house or anything.

It took me a couple of weeks after that happened, and being scared, and doing research on strangulation, and learning that strangulation’s one of the most serious forms of physical abuse. It’s a significant predictor for future lethal violence and if your partner has strangled you, your risk of being killed by them is 10 times higher. I had always known that he would kill me eventually and it was scary once I started doing the research. I wish the police had known certain questions to ask me and known to maybe get me out of the house at that point.

MALIKA:                 Jennifer, that was really, really difficult for me to hear again, because there’s just so many people out there who have had similar experiences. I’ve had my own experiences as well. It’s just sad to know that this is something that is not uncommon to hear when it comes to people helping or organizations coming to assist with these events and how they’re mishandled a lot of the time. We want to prevent this because I feel like there’s a lack of training sometimes and there’s a lack of awareness of some of these signs. It’s unfortunate that we have to educate ourselves on what our risk factors are. In the moment when we’re dealing with such an emotional event, we’re not thinking, “Let me look this up. Let me figure out what to do next.” Sometimes we’re in survival mode completely and just completely frantic and in such a high emotional state that this is traumatic, this is trauma that we’re dealing with.

How are we supposed to process our trauma and then also seek out the help and know exactly what to do in that moment. Not everybody responds to trauma the same way. We are hoping that there are people out there who can come to our aid, who are in these roles that are supposed to be coming to our aid. I wanted to ask what happened next after all of this, whether there was a case in court or if there were other opportunities for you to get some assistance with your situation, where did it end up?

JENNIFER:              Yeah, if I could step back here too, talking about enlightening and educating other areas in the community of what to look for. Another big place is healthcare. We talk about police, but healthcare is a big one as well.

When I had gone into the doctor, when I was seven months pregnant, after he threw me around, I said I fell down the stairs. Then there was another time where I went in with a sprained wrist and I said I fell on a toy. Another time he broke my arm and I had gone into the hospital and said, again, I fell on a toy. It’s all those times that I was secretly inside begging for somebody to say, “Really, you fell again?” At no point did anybody say anything or ask about it.

As far as stalking, that was another thing. He would find so many ways to contact me, whether it be setting up fake email addresses, or sending letters, or going against the restraining order by sending love letters to me in our son’s backpack. Again, at one point the police were ordered to arrest him, and they went and questioned him and didn’t arrest him. Then they walked out and said, “Well, he said he didn’t do it.” I was extremely, extremely fortunate though that he was charged in criminal court. He was charged with nine different counts of battery assault, strangulation, stalking, and ultimately I was saved by getting into court there.

One reason that I’m such an advocate and I tell my story is to help other women, obviously. One thing that saved me in court was over the years, I had kept documentation of everything that was happening. I just had an email that I would constantly reply to myself and I hid it in a folder that I was hoping he would never find. I kept track of everything he said, every threat, every time a gun was pulled out, anytime he hurt me physically, screaming, fits, whatever it was. I kept track of that, which helped me in court. I think that’s a huge thing to tell people who are in that situation is document as much as you possibly can.

Unfortunately… I should say fortunately because I look at it that way, he was found guilty of all the counts except the strangulation. Unfortunately, the police station was called in to testify during trial and, they thought-they claimed they did nothing wrong by questioning us in the same room. Ultimately, that’s why he was found not guilty. My understanding was the jury said they know he did it. They believed 100% that he did it, but they didn’t have all the proper documentation in order to convict him of it. Had the police done a better job or asked questions or took me into a separate room to question me, I believe he would’ve been in prison for at least another six years.

MALIKA:                 Jennifer, your story is really amazing and what you’re doing, I really appreciate you being able to share your story and speak up for a lot of the survivors out there. I really appreciate you for opening up and sharing that.

JENNIFER:              Thank you.

MALIKA:              The DV RISC project works with communities, mostly criminal legal systems and communities to better identify and respond to high risk IPV cases, such as what we just heard.

Much of the work is focused on using risk assessments to identify and better manage these cases. For example, law enforcements can use the risk assessment when they’re on the scene with the survivor alone, like in Jennifer’s case, she was not questioned alone. When they are using this with the survivor, it forces them to ask a list of questions that address those high risk factors that we talked about earlier, such as stalking, strangulation, firearms, and all the above. Healthcare staff can also use these assessments. They can see if they’re at a high risk of being seriously harmed or even killed. When they connect with them, they’ll be able to provide appropriate services based on what the score is of these assessments. There’s also risk assessments that can be used in court. In court, they could use this to see the offender’s risk of causing harm to their partner, again, to see if there’s a pattern, if it’s reoccurring. These assessments could really be changing the way that we view or assess individuals who may be at risk in all realms in all fields.

Do you think that in your case, Jennifer, if a risk assessment was used when you had called the police that it may have made a huge difference between how it was reported and what information was utilized in your court systems? Do you think that they’re helpful in giving survivors the opportunity to really talk about what’s going on and then be connected to the right services?

JENNIFER:              Yeah, to be completely honest with you, and I believe I said before, even if the police in my situation had used some type of assessment or asked me questions, I don’t know that, in that moment, I would have been honest because I was so scared. The same thing I talk about when I drove myself to the hospital when he broke my arm, even if at that point if somebody had said, “You know? Something seems a little wrong here.” Again, I don’t know that I would’ve been honest in that situation. However, during that time, even when the police questioned me, I believe that there should be some training for things to look at, where my family was standing there telling the police, “Don’t believe her. Something’s going on. We all see it.” They didn’t look at that. They didn’t look at how I was scared.

I believe they could have seen signs that I was lying and that something else was going on. I wish they would’ve documented that. Again, that really would’ve helped me in court. It would’ve helped me in court had we had documentation from hospitals. Like I said, even if, in that situation the person being abused isn’t ready to admit it or is too scared to admit it, at least there’s some type of documentation or somebody’s being notified of it. The same thing when the police were supposed to arrest him for breaking restraining order and they didn’t. Again, I don’t know why. They didn’t look into what he was charged with in criminal court knowing that he was facing this trial. I just think it’s a lot of education to help be preemptive in helping the survivor, even if they’re not ready to admit it at that time.

MALIKA:                 Right. I’m a big supporter of assessments myself because I truly do believe that everybody is great at what they do. A lawyer is great at being a lawyer. A police officer is great at being a police officer. A therapist is great at being a therapist. But the thing is, we don’t have cross-training. You can’t ask a therapist to think like a police officer. You can’t ask a police officer to think like a therapist and vice versa. These assessments, if they’re given to individuals in their professional field, it’ll pretty much be a tool to guide them to ask questions that they may have not thought about. Things that they aren’t trained to look for. With that being said, it would fill in for those spots where, like in your situation they would know, “Okay, this here, she answered yes to this.”

This is the procedure or the protocol that I need to do now, because this question is highlighted as there’s a risk here. This needs to be documented because this could be utilized and this could help her in the future. This could minimize or prevent something serious from happening. Even within the hospital, if they see this patient X amount of times in the system for reoccurring injuries, maybe this person needs to be followed up with, maybe a counselor, a social worker or something like that to see what’s going on, because sometimes they’re focused on maybe just caring for… They do a great job. Yes. Our health professionals take care of our injuries. They heal us. They help us. Yes, but they’re not thinking sometimes domestic violence. They’re not looking for that. That is not their fault. That’s why these assessments are here and can be used so that it could bring the whole picture together and point and highlight that these particular individuals are going through something, and they need help.

Not only can they help connect survivors to services, but they can also help the causing harm to be held accountable. They’re good at giving opportunities for survivors and their voices to be heard. It also removes the biases that we were talking about earlier, pretty much like a person who may have a negative outlook on individuals who are dealing with domestic violence instead of using their opinionated mind and what they believe to be. They just have this assessment which is black and white. “I just need to follow the assessment. It doesn’t matter what I think, this is what it says.” Some of these biases and some of the stigma that is out there, is that a person who is dealing with domestic violence is weak. They do it to themselves or they cause this and the harm is their fault and things like that.

I’m pretty sure that we all can think about all of the negative commentary that goes along or is associated with a victim. I want to debunk all of that right now, it is not your fault, to the survivors for who are listening. It looks different on everyone also. There is no uniformed reaction to trauma. Not everyone is going to be crying and frantic and begging and shouting out from the top of their lungs, “I’m being abused.” That doesn’t happen all of the time. In my profession, what I’ve experienced, I have yet to see someone come to me and cry and say, “I’m being abused.”

It’s not up to us to make an opinion based off of someone else’s experience is where I’m getting to. These assessments help us create safe spaces for survivors to open up and assess the needs that they have. We talked about that before and how communities and legal systems can better respond to survivors and ensure that their voices are being heard. Now I want to talk about what comes next to make survivors feel supported and overcome what they’ve experienced.

I’ve worked with New York Project Hope as a crisis counselor team leader, and some of my roles and responsibilities included providing resources to the communities in New York City area. I also had a phone where we had a helpline and I would get calls, I could remember there was this particular person. She was a victim of intimate partner violence. I guess a lot of people would not have seen the situation for what it was if they didn’t go through it themselves personally. My crisis counselor had an interaction with this woman, and she was looking for housing, and that was where it started. He did not know exactly how to help her in that area, in that realm, because she was afraid of a shelter system.  I had suggested that she could just give me a call. As she was talking to me about her reasons, because I’m trained in open-ended interviews and just assessing what all the needs are besides housing, because sometimes what they’re coming to a professional about is not really the only problem. Sometimes we don’t even, ourselves, know what we need until someone offers the resource and we’re like, “You know what? Hey, I need that too.”

It’s important to be able to ask what the situation is so that you can talk about all the other resources that you can offer that you know of. This particular case, this woman, she was dealing with domestic violence in her home, and she was trying to get away from the individual, but she was in the contemplation phase. She wasn’t sure if she was going to leave. She was just trying to see if she could leave. That’s the part that people sometimes miss. It could look like sometimes that a person is just trying to find extra food or trying to find clothing or trying to find childcare. In my role as a team leader, when talking to this woman, it went from just asking for resources for housing and such, to her crying and opening up about the things that she had experienced within the pandemic.

That was what the purpose of Project Hope was, to address the resources that the community was lacking during the pandemic. Domestic violence was on the rise during that time. Let’s talk about it for a second. During the pandemic, children are home and spouses are home and they’re stuck in this house together and the world is shut down. Now they’re experiencing domestic violence at a higher rate than they were when they were separated.

I was getting plenty of phone calls of individuals who were dealing with this. It just seemed like housing was the main thing. That was for me, indicator that this person may be going through it. Then I came out with my own questions and my own protocol for helping individuals, once I heard that they were looking for housing. I started asking specific questions like, “Okay, do you need this? Do you that? Are you in danger currently right now? Are you in a private space?” Just treating individuals in a way that, when you hear these risk factors and stuff, like they possibly could be going through intimate partner violence currently in the moment.

This has been such a great conversation and such an emotion provoking conversation as well. I want to thank you, Jennifer, for sharing all of your thoughts and your experiences. You are such a brave and influential person and I really am proud of you for being able to share everything that you have told us. Before we wrap up, I just wanted to go back to this year’s theme again. I want to know, what else do you think communities should be doing to elevate the voices of IPV survivors in their communities, especially those that are at most risk of being killed? How can we truly elevate our survivor voices to affect change is where I’m going.

JENNIFER:              Yeah, thanks for asking. Definitely the training within the healthcare system and the police department, they understand because like you said, they’re not experts at this, right? It would be helpful for them to understand and for them to understand how many times it does take for somebody to get out of a relationship and how scary it can be, like in my situation, when he held a gun to my head and said, “I will kill you and I will kill our son before I let you leave.” I believe him. And to this day, I still believe him. There were reasons why I was not admitting it, which obviously the police did not know about. Just encouraging women to go into shelters, I at one point had gone into a woman’s shelter and just asked. In my mind, I knew what was happening wasn’t right.

Of course, over time you’re convinced that this is right and everything’s your fault. Just being able to go in and say, “Well, this is happening.” And having somebody say, “No, this isn’t right and you’re not crazy.” Instead of just saying, “You need to get out now, you need to get out now.” Exactly what you said was they helped me say, ” All right, I understand it’s really dangerous for you to get out now. Let’s make a plan. Let’s make a plain if he attacks you again, what your kids are going to do, what you’re going to do.” I think it’s helping people understand that it’s hard to get out, it’s dangerous to get out. Just making sure that people know what resources they can go to get the help that they need, and just understanding that there are people who understand and know exactly what they’re going through.

MALIKA:                 Absolutely. I think it’s very important to know that you’re not the only one that is going through a situation as such, and that there is plenty of resources out there to help. I do believe that these assessments are going to make a huge difference and if we utilize them in the correct way, in the right way, we can prevent many individuals from losing their lives.

That is all for today. Thank you so much for everyone who had tuned in and listened to our short little conversation. It is a short but very important one and I hope that you took all this information and wrote it down and it provoked a lot of thoughts. Definitely tell a friend, tell your coworker, tell your colleague, tell everyone. Tune in and learn about these assessments. Thank you.

This project is supported by Grant number 2020-TA-AX-K029, awarded by the Office on Violence Against Women, US Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, conclusions, and recommendations expressed in this podcast are those of the contributors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the US Department of Justice. For more information, please visit dvrisc.org.


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